Chapter 4: The Mean Machine

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It was the last day of our silage-making season. I sat on our tractor, holding the engine heater switch, waiting for the motor to warm up, and looking at one lonely longer fingernail. They certainly weren't the hands of a secretary anymore. It's a strange transition indeed to operate huge machinery (like a tractor), when you have been accustomed to (and most comfortable with) a typewriter and telephone. Fresh air instead of air-conditioning, and extremely short, often broken and grubby fingernails instead of the well-manicured and nail-polished beauties of those long-gone pampered days.

And the interminable lessons-how to milk cows, breed up a solid dairy herd, recognise when you need the vet, and when you can cope yourself with the countless remedies you have on hand. Feeding and fencing, building and breeding... the list goes on.

And once a year, making silage. "What is that?" I hear you ask. Wikipedia says - 'Silage is fermented, high-moisture stored fodder which can be fed to ruminants (cud-chewing animals such as cattle and sheep) or used as a bio-fuel feedstock for anaerobic digesters'.

Elsewhere is the suggestion that - 'Silage may be stored in pits, bunkers, stacks or as large round or large rectangular bales'. Our choice was the wedge-shaped stack, and this is how 'the Missus' felt to be the silage harvester.

Engine's warm enough now, ignition key 'ON' and with a shudder or two, the tractor roars into life. Shift the lever to engage the harvester's mighty mowing power. As the cutting blades start to turn and swing, they slowly gather speed. Faster and faster to their wildest rotation... and the clatter builds to a near-deafening roar. Now I need those ear muffs. Steadily lift the hand accelerator lever to ¾ mark, just like Kanute taught me. Up go the revs, higher and higher, until it's the moment to put the tractor into gear. Hand brake off now, ease the foot off the clutch pedal-slowly but surely... and we start-the tractor and bin and me. Moving through the pasture grasses innocently swaying in the breeze-unaware that soon their paddock will be smooth as a prized front lawn.

Today we will finish making the silage we've worked on all week-between milking cows and feeding calves. Once again I'm mowing the grasses, grown tall in the past months, whilst Kanute stacks the loads on the wedge-shaped stack (grown huge now)-lifting great heaps of mown grass from each load I've dumped. He uses the buck-rake on the back of our other tractor... building and compacting the stack after each new layer is spread. That's the part I've always hated most-hated and feared desperately. Especially the moment when he backs up to the high edge (finally over 3 metres tall) to compact the stack. The hefty steel rake hangs far out over the edge, seeming to defy all laws of gravity and balance.

But the worst is still to come. Kanute changes into forward gear and the tractor slips back even further, until the wheels grip and he safely lurches forward again. I never managed to view this calmly, without a heart-stopping moment or three. In my mind I clearly pictured the tractor somersaulting over in slow motion... but it never did. He always knew what he was doing.

Don't dwell on that part. Just focus on the cutting. The good Lord knows it takes all my concentration (and courage) to tackle this job.

I turn to look behind at the tall 'Hurricane' forage harvester and even loftier catching bin trailing behind the tractor. Part of me never adapts to operating all this big machinery. But I love the feeling of power and excitement it inspires.

I'm proud of having learnt to line up a spot on the bonnet of the tractor to get the maximum width cut, without missing any rows. Even some of the older farmers around have complimented me on this evenness... rare praise indeed.

Carefully around the corners, especially this bottom one...the bin leans a bit on this one... Phew-w-w, a momentary chill. Back onto the straight length again, relax a little now, and take a moment to enjoy the wind in my hair and face.

How I love the fresh, clean smell of the new-mown grass as it is cut and thrown up through the funnel of the harvester into the bin.

Watch that bin-it's getting SO full. Can I make it to the end of this round? Close! Yes, it's okay. Stop now, disengage the power drive, and the noise drops dramatically. Forgot just how loud it's been-until I stop. My ears continue ringing for some time.

Over to the stack, close as possible; stop again; stretch impossibly far back and grasp the handle that opens the whole back section so the load can drop out. A couple of quick taps on the accelerator pedal to jerk the tractor and shake out all the remaining grass, then slam the big door shut again. A wave and a grin to Kanute, and I'm off once again.

Round after round goes by, each one leaving an ever-shrinking area.

Sometimes I smile as I drive. My thoughts often drift to how it had been in that small, air-conditioned office all day, head down, fingers tap-tapping, escaping all the extremes of the weather. Those comfortable conditions of yesterday would be claustrophobic now after experiencing this freedom and space. I'm alive, so alive-working in harmony with our world. The seasons, the weather, the animals, all dictate our jobs for each day. And although every new day brings something different, everything is orchestrated to the rhythmic pattern of life and death.

Last round! Just criss-cross the paddock to clean up the corners, and come back to the stack for the final time. Ahh... the supreme joy of turning everything off, and climbing down.

By the end of this part of our day, I am stiff and sore and suddenly painfully aware of my spine's discomfort. Walking around arching and rubbing my back helps, as I gratefully watch the last load being added and witness the final compaction for the day. After days of this work, finally it is done.

We walk around the stack, admiring the quantity and quality of the grass for the current year, and then walk up on top of the stack to its highest point, to admire the view from the newly created vantage point.

The two of us stand with arms around each other looking out over our 'girls' happily grazing. In the incredible quiet after all the noise of the day's toil, we hear the birds; and a lamb in the distance calling for its mother. We share not only aching tiredness but also deep satisfaction in a job well done. We cannot remember greater reward than this pure gold feeling.

Old McLarsen Had Some Farms - a memoir:      Book Two - The Milky WayWhere stories live. Discover now